“Philadelphia used to have a lot of industry. Not so much anymore.” –Harry Hagin, site superintendent, Camden Iron and Metal, 12/19/07
At 7AM on Sunday, demolition charges will echo throughout the refineries and tank farms of South Philadelphia as scrap dealers Camden Iron and Metal implode the headhouse of the last of Philadelphia’s great grain elevators, the Tidewater Grain Elevator at Girard Point. This will leave only the former Reading Company/Tidewater Company elevator at 20th and Shamokin St. to witness to the city’s history as a grain entrepot.
The reinforced concrete structure was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1914. Since the elevator was built to withstand a catastrophic explosion of highly flammable grain dust, the remaining silos are especially solid and will be manually demolished with a wrecking ball.
[GIRARD POINT ELEVATOR, FROM THE DESIGN OF MASONRY STRUCTURES AND FOUNDATIONS, CLEMENT CLARENCE WILLIAMS, 1922]
When the Tidewater Elevator comes down, Philadelphia will not only lose a vestige of its relatively short-lived history as a collection, storage, and distribution point for grain but also an austere piece of architectural history arguably of international significance. As architectural historian Reyner Banham has pointed out in his Concrete Atlantis, European architects like Le Corbusier and Gropius looked upon an American landscape littered with elevators, what “the monumental vernacular of the 20th century” and were smitten by the no-nonsense frankness of these structures’ precise geometrical forms. They looked fawningly upon the hosts of unappreciated American engineers, those clinical technicians, throwing up brash new structures (“forms in light”) in defiance of gravity, history, and the traditional patrons and critics of architecture. Corbusier’s adoration of grain elevators is manifest in his sterile geometrical City of Tomorrow, where pods for living soar stark and solitary above the treeline much like the Tidewater presided over low slung Philadelphia for most of the twentieth century. Like jazz and the Constitution, the reinforced concrete grain elevator was an American form that enjoyed international acclaim.
There is little to add to Jessica Chiu’s well-researched piece on the Tidewater’s origins, its technical features, and the national economic trends in grain storage that caused its demise. Essentially, the technical advantage of the structure was its position in the urban tidewater: all the locational advantages of situating an elevator within well-developed rail and ship transportation systems. As early as 1881, the Pennsylvania Railroad saw the value of the ground at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers and constructed a wooden elevator at Girard Point. With South Philadelphia undeveloped for most of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the PRR could easily cast its tracks directly to its tidewater facility. The coupling of the tidewater site to the PRR’s extensive national system meant that the Girard Point Elevator could temporarily offset the advantages of the new midwest grain centers of Buffalo and Minneapolis. In 1922 a solid train of 50 cars of wheat arrived from Buffalo in 27 hours, setting a new speed record for grain. While the midwest became the new national distribution node for grain, the reasons why the Girard Point/Tidewater failed to function as an international export point have yet to be explored.
[US ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS, PORT OF PHILADELPHIA, CAMDEN, AND GLOUCESTER, 1938]
When the Tidewater Grain Company purchased the elevator from the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1965 for $750,000, Tidewater could hardly have been considered a sucker. While grain transport and export was no longer a core function of the PRR, this did not mean that Philadelphia was not an advantageous export site. The Reading Railroad still maintained their elevator at Port Richmond and according to Chiu, Tidewater — with the assistance of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation — was able to update its grain handling mechanisms and unload 1.1 million bushels in a single day. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s Lower Schuylkill Waterfront District Plan of 1981 showed a city eager to reach out to a Tidewater Grain Company struggling in a “highly competitive grain export industry.” The PCPC optimistically noted that the company had “increased its grain exports from 350,000 tons in 1969 to 2 million in 1981,” in addition to recently purchasing “1,100 rail cars, two over-the-road switching engine, and eleven miles of track from Conrail.” Emboldened by Tidewater’s export numbers and its aggressive cost cutting in grain transfer operations, the PCPC recommended the deepening of the Schuylkill River from thirty-three to thirty-seven feet to open the complex’s two piers to forty foot draft ships, “the industry standard.”
[PHILADELPHIA CITY PLANNING COMMISSION, LOWER SCHUYLKILL WATERFRONT DISTRICT PLAN,1981, P.71]
In 2004, the long-defunct grain elevator’s proximity to I-95 appeared to offer the prospect of salvation. In April of that year, the much-missed Philadelphia Independent reported that a deal was afoot to use the Tidewater as a massive billboard, to adapt a once-useful machine to the new Disneyfied postindustrial economy that seeks to market Philadelphia’s glut of planar surfaces. In this imagined role, the Tidewater’s would still be in the transportation and distribution businesses; yet this time it would broadcast its infinite stream of images to motorists. Pausing never to stop, never requiring refilling, the structure’s blank exterior would trump the elevator’s inner world of bins, hoppers, ladders, and chutes. The shell would become more useful than the inner workings — a pointed interrogation of our notion that buildings’ interiority contain their utility. And instead of a thing signifying the torurous knot of labor, economics, technology, deindustrialization: it would become a Learning-from-Las Vegas-scaled Frankenstein. This fate, however, did not befall the Tidewater. Fast forwarding to now, Harry Hagin and Camden Iron and Metal again grasp the geographical advantages of the tidewater. The scrap reclamation firm wants to consolidate its various Jersey-side yards at the site, install a huge scrap maw, and use the piers to ship the rest of the residue of America’s industrial past to international buyers.
|More photos of Tidewater|